Authors: Eli Erez, Fiona Gordon, Nathan Benn and Wayne Nicholls – Bialik College Educators

We awoke this morning to the news that yesterday a group of Hamas militants sent a cluster of colourful helium balloons to fly an explosive device into southern Israel. It landed in the field in the Sdot region not far from where we stayed in Be’er Sheva. The IDF responded and struck two Hamas positions in southern Gaza in response to this attack. Hamas then fired a missile that was intercepted by the iron dome.

While we have been experiencing the incredible sights, history and culture of Israel, it has been easy for us to forget the conflict occurring between Israel and its Arab neighbours in this peaceful environment.

At our briefing after breakfast, we were acutely reminded of the conflict. The JNF ensured that our safety was paramount and had made alternative arrangements for the day if they were needed.

Our first stop was at Kibbutz Nir Am, 500m from the Gaza border, 200 families have created a lush and beautiful oasis. We heard the compelling stories from various members of the Kibbutz about their daily struggles from the Arab-Israeli conflict. We first heard the heartbreaking tale of a mother named Nogah. Her daughter Tal was outside playing when a Hamas missile flew over her killing 2 young children. She was traumatised by the experience. When Nogah had the chance to move to Sydney to complete her PHD, she jumped at the opportunity, to ensure her family’s safety. On the first night they arrived, there was a ferocious storm, causing loud crashes of thunder. She recalls her daughter breaking down in tears, “you promised there would be no bombs”. Many years later, now living back in Nir Am, Tal is studying International Relations and working towards educating people about surviving the conflict and flourishing in Israel.

We then heard from a Bedouin KKL firefighter who described the kites used by Hamas that fly over the Gaza border with burning charcoal, deliberately designed to ignite bush fires in Israel. Australia has so much knowledge and expertise to share when it comes to fighting fires and we hope this can be shared in future.

Finally we went on a tour of the kibbutz guided by a lady named Amit. She showed us the beautiful gardens and told us about her experience playing hide and seek with her three-year-old child. A red alert signal sounded, she was calling out to Ithay “we have to go to the bomb shelter!” She knew that she only had 15 seconds to make it to safety. The next 15 seconds were the longest 15 seconds of her life. What would you do? She heard a piercing scream from behind a bush and found her son. A day later everything returned to normal and life continued.

The question we all wanted to know from these Israelis was why do they choose to live here?

Their responses were identical. “If we leave this place, who will live here instead? This is our victory over those who want to kill us. We live on the most beautiful place on earth. It’s worth fighting for and we trust that the IDF will protect us.”

At the end of our visit to Kibbutz Nir Am, we were divided up into three groups: kindergarten teachers, primary teachers and secondary teachers. The kinder teachers stayed at the Kibbutz and ran activities that they had prepared earlier for the children of the kibbutz. The other two groups went to the Sha’ar HaNegev primary and secondary schools where we were greeted by the school principals and taken on a tour.

Both schools are purpose built bomb shelters with each classroom offering complete protection to their students. The high school entrance consisted of archeological finds from the Byzantine era as a reminder of the past and an ecological garden to encourage a sustainable future. This garden complete with hot houses of fruit and vegetables was a flourishing outdoor classroom. The principal’s ethos of encouragement of all students to be themselves and form a unique identity was a standout example of the pioneering spirit.

Upon entering the primary school playground, we could feel an overwhelming sense of positivity, energy and resilience. Even though we could see classrooms made from thick iron and concrete and teachers walking around with their phones to receive updates about potential threats, we were flooded at Recess time by hundreds of smiling, enthusiastic and positive faces. Despite language barriers, we connected through the warmth of the children’s’ welcome. The example that these children set for us of resilience, taught to them explicitly in an early primary leadership program, exemplified how with careful school design, they felt entirely safe.

We observed a conflict resolution class where the children had complete agency. The outcome was in their hands as they role played different actions to achieve solutions. The learning intention for this lesson was “the only way to truly resolve a conflict is if it’s a win for both parties”.

We saw this in action at “Desert Stars” Young Leadership High School, a special Australian project by Harry Triguboff for Leadership Development among the Bedouin community in the south. The principal Achlam inspired us through her vision, “the key to achieving goals is a good education, nothing is impossible if kids are given the chance to learn. They can take charge of their destiny”. She told her personal story, in which she declared that she would need to get better results than her brothers in order to justify her choice to continue her education. The teachers in her school are both Jewish and Bedouin. For the first time, the students learn that the Jewish people are not just the soldiers and policemen that guard over them. Her students understand that Jews and Arabs can work together to build a better future.

Conflict in this region is age old. Our day reminded us of the biblical conflict between Hagar and Sarah that led to the schism between the Jewish and Arab people. Our generation and future generations are now charged with the responsibility to resolve this conflict. We visited the Be’er-Sheva ANZAC Memorial Centre, where we learnt about Australia’s iconic victory of the 4th Light Horse Brigade in October 1917 that led to the recapture of Jerusalem.

As Australians in the current era, we could all make equal contributions through projects funded by organisations such as the JNF. We will carry this back with us to Bialik College as a goal for all in our community.

As eloquently expressed by Achlam, “I want my children to grow up as people who respect everyone, not just other Muslims. To see people as people and not through religion.”